Not quite Air Force One, but Trump chopper sparks frenzy

Republican front runner Donald Trump arriving at a rally in Boca Raton, Florida, in his personal helicopter.
Mr Mike Buonaiuto attending a Trump rally in Florida in a white bodysuit on which he encouraged people to write comments - Republicans used a red marker pen, Democrats blue. By the end of the rally, his suit was mainly red. PHOTOS: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY
Mr Mike Buonaiuto attending a Trump rally in Florida in a white bodysuit on which he encouraged people to write comments - Republicans used a red marker pen, Democrats blue. By the end of the rally, his suit was mainly red.
Republican front runner Donald Trump arriving at a rally in Boca Raton, Florida, in his personal helicopter.PHOTOS: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

WASHINGTON • The orchestral theme from the movie Air Force One swelled as Mr Donald Trump's supporters were told to "look to the north-western sky!" And there he was, the man himself in his personal helicopter, appearing out of the darkness.

The crowd went wild, cheering, waving posters and whipping out handphones to capture the moment.

He was more than an hour late for his 7pm rally in Boca Raton, Florida, on Sunday, but all was forgiven - Mr Trump had arrived.

"That's something, isn't it?" said businesswoman Kyle Bryce, 56. "I'm thrilled I came out today."

The real estate billionaire has been filling stadiums almost from the beginning of his campaign, and in Florida, where he is the front runner among Republican candidates, it was no different.

In contrast, Florida Senator Marco Rubio's rallies on Monday - the last day before Floridians cast their primary vote - were much more intimate and subdued.

In Miami, where his campaign held a homecoming meet-and- greet, the crowd of a few hundred barely filled a basketball court.

Mr Rubio stood on the back of a pick-up truck and used a loudspeaker to address the crowd (he had tried using a microphone but it didn't work).

Before Mr Rubio arrived, a protester jumped on the pick-up and told the crowd that it was over for the Rubio campaign. He was chased off with fervour, but it was nothing compared to the palpable energy at Mr Trump's rally.

In Boca Raton, the carnival-like atmosphere was convivial, with only hints of the animosity that resulted in violent scuffles in Chicago on Friday.

Some like Mr James Avitto, 53, who owns a painting business, had arrived more than eight hours early just to secure a good spot at the rally, which attracted an estimated 10,000 people.

Mr Avitto said he was there to see Mr Trump in person for the first time. "We've gotta defeat (terrorist group) ISIS and he has a plan," he told The Straits Times as he stood in line for a hotdog. Free T-shirts and caps with the slogan "Make America Great Again" were hurled into the audience, stirring excitement before Mr Trump's arrival. A balled-up T-shirt hit a woman on the head, and she fell. Unhurt, she bounced back up, clutching her T-shirt in glee.

One supporter, businessman Richard Rossi, 59, even wore a hat with horns (he had to take it off before entering the open-air amphitheatre for security reasons) and made a sign to match: "You Get No Bull with Trump."

Asked about the sign, Mr Rossi said: "We are just so fed up. Everybody talks, nobody does s**t."

Perhaps the biggest showman - aside from Mr Trump, of course - was Mr Mike Buonaiuto, 25, who works in sales development for a tech company. He arrived in a white bodysuit and asked people to scribble their thoughts on it: Republicans used a red marker, Democrats blue and independents green. By the end of the event, his suit was mainly red.

"I had the suit, so I got the idea that I could be a sounding board today - the voice of the people," said Mr Buonaiuto, who has yet to decide which candidate he will vote for.

Outside the gated amphitheatre, tensions rose when a man wearing an "Obama Sucks" jacket taunted anti-Trump protesters who were watched closely by police and kept to one side of a street.

He told them to get jobs and stop feeling entitled while they chanted "Love Trumps Hate". Police on horses positioned themselves between supporters and protesters.

Mr Jesse Cosme, 28, who works in sales and acted as the spokesman for the anti-Trump group, said they were not trying to be controversial.

"Florida is still the deep south and there is an undercurrent of racism here. We didn't feel comfortable with Trump coming into our backyard," he said.

With most of the protesters kept at bay, the rally went off with little disturbance. Mr Trump told the crowd about his plans to slap tariffs on overseas goods, encouraging people to vote for him and pointing out how he loved a sign in the audience that said "Build the wall".

"We love that wall, don't we? That wall's going to happen, folks," he promised, and for the upteenth time that evening, the crowd cheered in approval.

Melissa Sim

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 16, 2016, with the headline 'Not quite Air Force One, but Trump chopper sparks frenzy'. Print Edition | Subscribe